Tonight’s Tune Damage embed is another beloved classic from my misspent youth.
Even in the eclectic, anything-goes era when it was released, Edwin Starr’s version of “War” managed to not sound quite like anything else on the radio at the time, a genuine standout. Mark-1, Mod-0 antiwar-shitlib sentiment lyrically, of course, but I never was bothered by that; Edwin Starr’s powerful, rock ’em-sock ’em, old-school-R&B vocal performance simply flattens all other considerations. Plus, this is Soul Train we’re talking about here, man—the real-deal original, the likes of which have never been equalled and will never be seen again. Taken altogether, there just ain’t no gainsaying this vid far as I’m concerned. The raw data:
Motown hitmakers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote this song. Starr began his career recording for Ric-Tic Records, a Detroit label that was a rival to Motown. In 1968, Motown bought Ric-Tic, which gave Starr access to their writers and producers.
This is a protest song about the Vietnam War, although it makes a broader statement of the need for harmony in our everyday lives.
“War” was one of the first Motown songs to make a political statement. The label had always been focused on making hit songs, but around this time Motown artists like The Temptations and Marvin Gaye started releasing songs with social commentary, many of which were written by Whitfield.
The Temptations were the first to record this; it was included on their 1970 album Psychedelic Shack. Motown had no intention of releasing it as a single, but many in the protest movement, especially college students, made it clear that the song would be a big hit if it was. Motown head Berry Gordy had other plans for The Temptations and didn’t want them associated with such a controversial song, so he had Starr record it and his version was released as a single. Starr didn’t have as big a fan base to offend.
This song has a very distinct tambourine part, played by percussionist Jack Ashford. He was one of the Motown Funk Brothers who played on the track; bass player Bob Babbitt and guitarist Dennis Coffey were also part of it.
Coffey came up with the psychedelic guitar sound Norman Whitfield used on “Cloud Nine” by The Temptations, which marked a musical shift for the label. In a Songfacts interview with Coffey, he said: “Norman wanted to change the sound of Motown, and I was the guy that helped him do it. He wanted to get into that protest and social consciousness stuff, so I did that fuzz tone thing up high on ‘War.'”
Starr added the interjections “good God y’all” and “absolutely nothing,” which became some of the most famous ad-libs in music history.
Starr won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Male Vocal for this song.
Starr died of a heart attack in 2003. He was 61.
Starr’s rendition was released in ’70, rocketing straight up to Number One and holding firm there for about a month. I was 10 years old myself and well remember what a monster hit “War” was; it was absolutely all over AM radio that summer, which in those glorious days was exactly where any artist and record label needed a new release to be if it was to ever have a hope of amounting to anything. As you might expect, I got the .45 from my uncle’s drugstore just as soon as I could get my hands on it. Wish I still had it, too; God only knows what it would be worth on eBay now.